Sunday, November 13, 2005

River Run Red

When I was on home leave in Seattle several months ago I finally had an opportunity to meet the author, Andrew Ward, in person. My wife taught in the same department at the university as his wife a dozen or so years ago, so I had known about him for quite some time and had read several of his books. He told me had written another one, this time a book about an incident from the Civil War. It hadn't yet been published then, but it has now and I was able to buy it at a bookstore here in Manila last week. It's not yet out in paperback (don't hold your breath), but it's well worth the hardbound price. Ken Burns himself wrote the blurb on the back cover.

Ward anatomizes a Civil War battle fought in western Tennessee in April, 1864, known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. The book deals with the efforts of the Union army to enlist what were known then as "colored troops" after the slaves in the southern states had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation early in 1863. I haven't yet read the whole book, so I won't try to review it here, but much of the story revolves around a Confederate cavalry general and local slave dealer, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who many people regard as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The reputation he developed and the methods he employed in that massacre do much to explain how the Klan came into being and has managed to persist for nearly a century and a half.

The book is particularly interesting to me because my German immigrant great great grandfather served with the 27th Wisconsin Infantry, a unit that spent most of the war in Arkansas, directly across the Mississippi River from Fort Pillow. My ancestor didn't join the unit until early 1865 as a replacement troop. He was in Arkansas for only a few days or perhaps a week or two at most before the unit went downriver to New Orleans in preparation for the siege of Mobile, but the men of his regiment had spent the previous two years in circumstances almost identical to those painstakingly described in Ward's book.

A primary mission for the Department of Arkansas under General Frederick Steele was to recruit, organize and train "colored troops" from among the many freed slaves in Arkansas. When the forts fell in Mobile in April, 1865, the fortifications there were breached by "colored troops" while my great great grandfather's unit and many others were held back in reserve.

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